Captive State should be exactly the kind of movie I want to see more of. As much as we love superheroes, Star Wars, and the endless parade of easily exploitable ‘80s and ‘90s nostalgia that keeps manifesting as remakes, reboots, belated sequels, and even TV shows, quality, original genre films should be celebrated so they aren’t lost in the shadow of the ever-expanding blockbuster calendar. So something like Captive State, from Rise of the Planet of the Apes director Rupert Wyatt, with its authoritarian overtones and eerie realism couched in its alien invasion premise should be a safe bet for a 2019 genre movie that keeps people talking all year. Unfortunately, it’s not.
Set roughly a decade after an alien invasion became a full scale occupation, Captive State uses a number of shorthand techniques to bring viewers up to speed, whether it’s the computer readout that spits out background information during the open the opening credits, a series of news broadcasts, or the glimpses of daily life seen in a “data collection center” where humans work, it established a lived in, believable post-occupation Chicago. To its credit, Captive State tries to balance its sci-fi premise with a kind of Cold War paranoia and Wyatt directs much of the movie with an exceedingly bleak and chilly look, one that wouldn’t be out of place in a movie bearing an “East Berlin, 1983” setting (barring the ominous giant mech factories that pepper the background), complete with humans spying on each other and reporting in to their new government overlords. But somehow that paranoia rarely manifests as actual tension on screen, and the characters are too unlikeable to ever feel believably conflicted.
Of those characters, there are only a handful worth mentioning. There’s William Mulligan (John Goodman), a human cooperator monitoring members of the resistance, Gabriel Drummond (Moonlight’s Ashton Sanders), a young revolutionary with a family axe to grind, living in the shadow of his martyred older brother (Jonathan Majors). Goodman delivers a particularly understated performance, and his scenes with Sanders, whose Gabriel is all determination and frustration, are highlights. The problem is that, despite this pair by far getting the most screen time, somehow the script leaves them both with little to actually do with their characters. There’s also Vera Farmiga passing through as the aptly named “Jane Doe,” an utterly thankless role.
On the other hand, our alien overlords (known as the “Legislators”) make for terrific visuals, and they’re wisely deployed only sparingly. Insectoid, sharp, and spiky, they’re genuinely unsettling to look at, with their protruding spines substituting for expression. Communicating with a language that is nothing more than a disturbing series of clicks and guttural buzzing, and watching humans matter-of-factly translate for them during an interrogation scene makes for one of the most effective scenes in the movie. When they’re out doing their dirty work, some take on a somewhat Sentai-esque armored form, certainly more traditional than much of what the movie goes for, but it’s a cool design. Rather than lean into that one concession to traditional sci-fi alien blockbuster convention, the scene alternates between up close, claustrophobic horror, and a distant, simple, almost news broadcast style. It’s really effective, and like a similarly tense “unity festival” organized by the alien overlords (something so intentionally cringeworthy you’d think it’s a Fourth of July celebration organized by an absurdly insecure President), it’s one of the glimpses of what this movie could have been.
Somewhere in here, there’s a much better movie, but I’m damned if I can figure out where. The script, by Wyatt and Erica Beeney, is flat, with most characters stuck making mumbled declarations or speaking in hushed, conspiratorial (and frequently expository) tones. But even this isn’t the culprit. It feels at times like Captive State is just a collection of scenes (some of which, especially those involving the Legislators or the street-level style that revolutionary action is filmed, are quite impressive) that don’t flow one to the next, but rather just happen.
In fact, much of Captive State just seems to “happen” to its characters, rather than having them drive the narrative. The impression is often that important chunks of the story are somehow missing. Was this movie a victim of a brutal edit process at some point in its lifespan? Its relatively lean 109 minute running time doesn’t offer any clues, but it’s the only explanation I can think of for how a movie with a concept this sound, with a solid cast, and by a director with a proven genre track record could just fall so flat.
For all its ambition, Captive State is far too muddled and obscure to make any kind of statement about authoritarianism or the creeping reality of the surveillance state. It’s more forgettable than haunting, not hopeful enough to be inspiring, and too morose to capture any of the revolutionary spirit hinted at in its marketing campaign. Maybe some will have more patience for its plodding pace and taciturn characters, and there’s certainly worse sci-fi out there you could spend two hours with, but Captive State never really elevates its premise or delivers the kind of spectacle that would make it worth seeing on the big screen.